Here’s an exquisitely crafted collection that belongs in every music lover’s treasure trove.
Soprano Susanna Phillips opens the delectable set with an impassioned rendering of Claude Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées. Pianist Myra Huang is the ideal partner and musical confidante: their shared vision is evident throughout.
At the centre of the six “forgotten” gems is Chevaux de Bois: it’s a marvel of colour and characterization. Phillips’ slightly nasal “hautbois” defines word-painting; there’s no doubt the “rogue” lives up to poet Paul Verlaine’s billing and the frequent turns are dispatched with saucy brilliance or reflective solace as required. Huang keeps the carousel whirling relentlessly then delivers a thoughtful adieu that artfully vanishes into the twilight.
The soprano’s supple instrument creates a haunting “tienne” in “C’est L’extase Langourese” and unforgettable change of register in “Il Pleure Dans mon Couer.” No finer example of exquisite diction can be found than in “de la fumée” (“L’Ombre des Arbes”) where once again the piano adds poignant depth following the mournful expiration of the text. “Green” is a wonderfully tender love song forever dashed on the emotional rocks by “Spleen” with its opening incantation setting the stage for overwhelming despair, allowing Phillips to soar in spectacular agony through the last line then redefine the meaning of “Alas!”
Olivier Messiaen’s contribution is a wonderfully constructed set of songs, prayers and declamations that combine to proclaim his strong faith and resolute—if curious in the 21st century—belief that “The wife is the extension of the husband … / Just as the Church is the extension of Christ”—perhaps “embodiment” might be a closer translation to “prolongement” from the texts, which were also penned by the composer. Appropriately bookended by predominantly chants (the opening piano soundscape of “Action de Grâces” fits the transition from Debussy to a tee; the unbridled joy that closes “Prière Exaucée” is palatable no matter what your faith; employing the piano to literally bring ecstasy from the heavens back down to Earth is the perfect reinforcement of the plea to heal a soul—effectively a rare unison when uttered), the work becomes a master class of balance and economy. “Terror” features a devil whose laugh runs the gamut of stark evil through melissmatic mockery; the balm to this horrific wound comes in the form of “The Wife,” where the calming effect appears just in time. Phillips displays her own considerable mastery of quiet control in “Ta Voix” while Huang is the model of discretion as the gradual dénouement of what the necklace really consists of in “Le Collier” unfolds. It’s hard to imagine a more convincing interpretation than from these more than able artists.
The quartet of songs from Gabriel Fauré are faithfully presented and, happily, employ more sage understatement than melodramatic tripe that some would infuse into the love-sick texts and music. After a decidedly Chopinesque introduction, “Après un rêve” satisfies at every turn. “Mirage” has never sounded so deliciously vague; the third heart-wrenching, desperate appeal to recreate the magic (“reviens”) can’t help but draw a knowing sigh from anyone whose true love seems more phantom than real. The closing “Adieu” disappears beautifully into the smoky ether: Huang’s first stanza interlude deftly sets up the tearless change that follows then Phillips’ last cry offers a delectable morsel for the ear and soul. JWR